We need to talk about Abortion

Abortion. In the past few months it has been difficult to pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio without reading or hearing about it; or reading and hearing that we’re not talking about it.

In December 2010 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Ireland failed to properly implement the constitutional right to abortion where a woman is entitled to one where her life is at risk. The ruling put the issue of abortion back on the political agenda and seemed likely to force the Government to introduce legislation or official guidelines on access to abortion for women whose lives were at risk.

Almost two years later, that legislation is still not in place. But have we not, in reality, been waiting 20 years for it?

Article 40 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, our Constitution, “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right”.

The equal right to life of the mother was considered in a 1992 Supreme Court ruling. It established the right for Irish women to have an abortion if the pregnant woman’s life was at risk because of pregnancy, including the risk of suicide. The now infamous X Case centered on a 14 year old girl who was raped by a neighbor, fell pregnant and allegedly became suicidal.

The ruling in the X Case resulted in the proposal of three amendments to the Constitution. The 12th Amendment proposed to roll back the X Case and remove suicide as a grounds for an abortion in Ireland. It was defeated. The Irish people voted in favour of the 13th and 14thAmendments which gave women the freedom to travel outside the state for an abortion and the freedom to obtain information on services that were available outside the state.

However no legislation was put in place to deal with situations in which the “real and substantial risk” to the life of the mother would be considered justification for an abortion within the State. What constitutes a “real and substantial risk” has yet to be defined by the powers that be.

This doesn’t mean Irish women aren’t having abortions. The idea of ‘going to England’ is one that’s deeply rooted in our society. Thousands of Irish women still make the trip every year. Figures released by the Department of Health in the UK revealed that 4,149 women providing Irish addresses had terminations in England and Wales in 2011.

In 2007, an Irish Times Behaviour and Attitudes Poll found that 54 per cent of women believed the Government should act to permit abortion. In 2010, an Irish Examiner/Red C Poll found that 60 per cent of people supported legal abortion and three in five people aged 18-35 believed abortion should be legalized.

Yet in 2002, Irish voters narrowly rejected the 25th Amendment of the Constitution (Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy) Bill, which would have removed threat of suicide as a ground for abortion and increased the penalties for helping a woman have a termination. A margin of less than 1 per cent between Yes and No votes illustrated the truly divisive nature of the issue among those who actually turned out at the polling stations.

Ten years later, groups on both sides of the abortion divide continue to lobby on the issue. The Irish Family Planning Association believe “access to safe and legal abortion services is a human rights issue” and state that several international human rights bodies have expressed concern about Ireland’s abortion laws. Youth Defence is dedicated to keeping Ireland abortion free and claims that abortion is “the greatest destroyer of life today”.

In April 2012 four women came forward to tell their stories. Their unborn children were, in their own words, “planned, loved and cherished” but “incompatible with life”. The decision to abort was made on medical grounds but they were forced to travel abroad for their terminations.

They watched the debate on the private members’ bill proposed to give effect to the “X” case, introduced by TD Clare Daly on behalf of herself, Joan Collins of People Before Profit and the Independent TD Mick Wallace. The Bill was thrown out by 109 votes to 20 and Fine Gael TD Clare Mulhern brought fornication back to the vernacular.

Five months later, the Government has yet to legislate for the “X” Case. No matter whether they are Pro Life or Pro Choice, there are people who want to express their democratic right and engage in a real debate about abortion. The issue is already proving internally divisive among political parties.

Regardless of the outcome, there’s only so long the Government can avoid sitting down and having ‘the talk’.

UCD College Tribune, September 11th 2012

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